Bloody, bold and resolute

Patrick Stewart shines as Macbeth, but this is more than a one-man show


Machine-gun fire rakes the stage at the Gielgud, which is dressed bleakly in white tiles and harshly illuminated with industrial lighting. A latecomer, on the way to his seat, mutters: "We might all be sprayed with blood." That's the thing about Macbeth; we know it's the nasty and brutish Scottish play steeped in gore, and Rupert Goold's production, which has transferred from Chichester, does not disappoint.

The play opens in a hospital; the Bloody Sergeant is twitching on a trolley and the three triage nurses are the Weird Sisters. At first, Patrick Stewart, arriving in a clanking lift and clad in manly khaki, seems a bit underplayed, but he is certainly a lot less genial than his fellow officer Banquo (Martin Turner). As Banquo greets the Witches and their prophecies with baffled but polite bemusement, Stewart immediately starts to narrow his eyes and purse his lips. He's not too sure about actually murdering the king, however. This Macbeth is not a born tyrant, but rather an honourable soldier who grows into his own horrible persona, and Stewart's great skill is to show us this trajectory through the evening.

He is mightily helped by his wife, played by Kate Fleetwood with glittering evil. Fleetwood mesmerises as Lady Macbeth - her sculptural face blanched, her lips a slash of crimson, every word crisply enunciated. She knows what her husband has to do, and she is going to force him to take his chance. She grasps the "Unsex me here" soliloquy with both hands and almost physically bends her body into the incantatory words.

Goold has ensured that at every step Macbeth is delineated within a social world. This is no one-man show where Stewart takes all the glory, but an intelligently thought-out company piece in which the horror of Macbeth is compounded by the reverberations of his deeds throughout Scotland. Banquo's murder is particularly brilliantly done, taking place on a crowded train, which morphs directly into the banquet scene and the horrendous apparition of Banquo, stark and dripping, on the dinner table - just before everyone goes for a glass of wine at the interval.

Aided by Anthony Ward's inspired design, in which the white-tiled room becomes kitchen, torture chamber and morgue by degrees, Goold delivers an array of fresh theatrical detail in terrain that is so well-trodden. Clearly, working for Macbeth is a miserable business; his thugs, hands vainly scrabbling for their blood money, are left high and dry, while Macbeth crumbles tobacco over the heads of his "friends" and sets up others for what Stalin might have called "questioning under duress".

On occasion, film clips of marching soldiers flash up on the white walls and harsh noises reverberate through the air. This is an inhumane world where nurses turn into sorceresses and no one trusts anyone. Meanwhile, over in England, everyone is enjoying a precarious peace and entertaining themselves with a lame sing-song around the piano. When Macduff (played by Michael Feast) learns the news of his family's murder, he reacts with shocked silence, one finger poised on the back of a chair, before his whole body is riven with chaotic movement.

I especially enjoyed the domestic details: Macbeth, tensely prefiguring the king's murder as he decants a bottle of red wine, or carefully preparing a sliced-meat sandwich for his hapless assassins; and Lady Macbeth, winging a Black Forest gateau out of a threatening-looking metal fridge. It all helps to portray the deadly duo as real people whose lust for power has overwhelmed their understanding of the consequences. At the end, Stewart divests himself of all this. As he gives a rendition of the great "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech, the entire audience rapt, one understands that he finally understands the price of megalomania and corruption of power. When Macduff, "from his mother's womb/Untimely ripp'd", turns up to despatch him, Stewart greets his destiny with a certain sense of relief.

This is a great Macbeth. It may not leave you spattered with blood, but it will certainly leave you inspired and thrilled.

For further info and booking details visit:

Pick of the week

The Masque of the Red Death
Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11
Fantastical performance, inspired by the short scary stories of Edgar Allan Poe, that requires a bit of audience participation. Dress up!

Donmar Warehouse, London WC2
Musical based on the lynching of a Jewish factory manager in early 20th-century America.

Don Quixote
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Greg Hicks as the Spanish hero.

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever